04 Mar iQhiya: The black female artist collective taking on the art world
iQhiya is the name of the recently formed collective of young black female artists that is taking on the white boy’s club that is the South African art world. Unlike black male artists, who are the darlings of the industry, young black female artists are predominantly under represented in the industry and overlooked by commercial galleries (mostly owned by white men). The founding principle of the collective is simple – there’s power in numbers. Together, the iQhiya artists are demanding attention and fostering their own space in the industry. The group presented their first performance piece at Greatmore Studios as part of Art Week Cape Town, and have an exhibition coming up in April at the AVA Gallery. We discovered the group a short while back and were excited to engage iQhiya in an interview to find out more about their endeavour.
Who is iQhiya and what are your various disciplines?
iQhiya consists of members who are professional artists, some reading towards their Masters and others completing their undergraduate degrees at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Members of iQhiya include:
Asemahle Ntonti, Bronwyn Katz, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Bonolo Kavula, Charity Kelapile, Lungiswa Gqunta, Matlhogonolo Kelapile, Sethembile Msezane, Sisipho Ngodwana, Thandiwe Msebenzi, and Thuli Gamedze.
We work across all disciplines from video art to printmaking, photography and sculpture. Each artist uses varying mediums and disciplines within their own practice. Some artists had probably never fathomed working in performance but had their go at it for the performance art piece at Greatmore Studios just over a week ago.
iQhiya, can you tell us a bit about the name and its significance in relation to the group?
“you know, I guess it makes me think of the struggles- protecting the head to fetch water… having to be the man of the house, and being a woman at the same time” – Asemahle Ntlonti.
Iqhiya, the head covering seems to equally reveal and conceal elements of black female-ness. I say ‘iQhiya’ and you think ‘dignity’. You think of the graceful carriage of motherhood- the figure of unshakeable power and infinite love.
There is an intergenerational connection between those that wrap their heads- an ancient inequality that targets black women at the intersections of their race and gender, and this potent violence continues to unfold and unfurl in newer and more clever ways in the contemporary era. We exist in a space of tension, which parallels that of iQhiya- a signifier of both strength and burden with the daily realities we face as young black women. The practice of the collective, iQhiya, therefore, is gestural; it is an action that asserts our presence through articulating our own narratives.
The work produced by iQhiya is at once playful and sombre; it is alive, and we’d do well not to deny its anger. Involving work from video, to print and sculpture, iQhiya tells stories of childhood, the future, and stories of the often veiled black female imagination.
How did the group form and how does it function as a collective?
iQhiya came from a place of observation, where as women we noticed a general trend of a limited or a lack of access, opportunities and visibility in our respective careers as artists. We started having individual conversations about this and then slowly gravitated towards each other with more women particularly from UCT.
In various working relations whether it be on campus, exhibitions or workshops, we have been confronted with a lack of respect from men. It was then important to form our own platform to share both personal and professional experiences in an effort to create and claim our own narratives and produce opportunities for ourselves in a male dominant industry.
What are some of the themes and narratives that inform the work you produce as a collective?
The exhibition at the AVA in April this year was set to be our first exhibition together. The departure point for the show in April is our name, iQhiya, which would have us look at race and gender politics including our position as women of colour in today’s contemporary art scene. #Opening curated by Justin Davy at Greatmore Studios was proposed to us and we decided to take the opportunity. For our first collaborative work we looked to Lungiswa Gqunta’s idea which interrogated womanhood, strength and protest. It was a concern that we all could associate with. Some of our individual concerns do coincide with one another and the meaning of “iQhiya” and the object itself is the meeting point for us all.
Why was it important to form this group?
As highlighted before, the lack of visibility of black women in the industry is disconcerting, when we are qualified, talented, involved in residency programs, as well as acquiring awards. We wanted to make ourselves more visible. We noticed black male artists were given a kind of attention that wasn’t easily granted to black women artists even though we make good art. We would think that our experiences as artists of colour would be the same but it is far from that. Working as a unit has given us more exposure. We laugh at the fact that our homogeneous status is far more appealing than our own individual endeavors. Now we are seen as professional artists. This is why it was important to form the group; to be seen.
Who are some of the artist or people that inspire you as a group?
We have a range of influences that are not particularly based on specific artists or even people.
What do you think of the current South African art scene? Are there changes that could/should happen?
The monopoly in the gallery system in South Africa leaves little opportunities for independent artists particularly in Cape Town. Thus more artist run programs and galleries are a much needed space. Thuli Gamedze is a writer and touches on this often. Some of us come from families who do not understand art and it has been challenging coming out of university and establishing ourselves as artists. The problem with coming out of university and wanting to practice as an artist is that you don’t have the money to make art. Ideally a stable artistic career supported by different platforms would be advantageous.
What have been some of the challenges that you have faced as black women navigating the art scene?
We’re just not taken seriously especially by our black male contemporaries. You begin to see it at tertiary level already. Despite all that, we all strive to make work of a high standard and we all agree that as artists the aim is to make good work. The challenge is to be seen and heard but we will continue to make the good work nonetheless.
In addition to making work individually, do you collaborate on group projects? What does this process look like?
Yes, at the moment it has been just performance based but we are looking at other avenues of expression. Individual members come up with ideas which we workshop.
Please tell us about your recent performance piece at Greatmore Studios.
The performance was inspired by an old photograph that belongs to Lungiswa Gqunta. In it is her mother and siblings all in their 20s. You see 5 beautiful bold young women, some sitting and some standing, each conveying their strength through their body language and facial expressions. Despite the strength you see in the photo, these women were actually facing personal hardships during that time in their lives. This photograph, however, shows otherwise. The idea that these women were going through a lot and still expected to portray a beautiful image of themselves comments on the expectations society has of women to be bystanders to their own pain, suffering and mistreatment.
The photograph was framed and put on display as part of the exhibition at Greatmore. This performance served as a protest against all the “shit” that women go through and the silence that is expected in return. We also learnt a lot about each through the performance. It was our first collaborative work and it also felt like a team building exercise. We stood on empty glass bottles which were placed in crates. We deliberately put very few bottles in each crate to make balancing on them a little harder. This was to inflict pain on our bodies, or feet in this instance, and illustrate the endurance of pain. We were suffering publicly but tried to hide the pain which later was evident. You could see it on our faces and body postures. At the end of the performance we got off the crates and stuffed an empty bottle with an “iQhiya”. This act referenced petrol bombing; a weapon of protest that speaks to our oppressive history and past struggles.
The audience was very much a part of the performance. How they reacted towards us was most interesting. Some people offered their assistance and another asked one of the members whether “it was sore” or not. Usual chit-chat occurred in and around our space and even weekend plans were made. It was as though we were mannequins unable to hear the people around us. Other people were more curious than others. Someone had even granted one of the members “permission” to “get off” the crates saying that they may step off if they wanted to.
What are your plans for iQhiya?
But our immediate plans are to find ways to assert ourselves in spaces and galleries in Cape Town and in other art scenes in South Africa. Our next collaborative work will be at Museum Night next week Thursday at the Iziko National Art Gallery and our group exhibition at the AVA which runs from the 7th of April to the 7th of May.